Holidays for Couples Holidays for Couples Apr-Sep 2017 - Page 75

myanmar // asia how to wear a longyi (the super-comfortable local version of a sarong) and even a cooking demo. It comes courtesy of executive chef Sumet Sumpachanyanont, who was at the five-star Mandarin Oriental Bangkok for 24 years before he took to the waters in Myanmar. His pedigree and experience are evident in every delicious bite at mealtimes. En route to Bagan on day three we visit a local market in the traditional country town of Pakokku, famed for its thanakha. This local version of sunscreen is made from the bark of the Thanakha tree. It forms a yellow paste that you’ll see smeared on the cheeks of almost every woman you meet, often applied in pretty, leaf-shaped patterns. Their skin is so beautiful and unlined, I’m convinced I’ve found the fountain of youth. I invest in some thanakha wood and a special stone on which to grind the bark, but am foiled by Customs when I declare it on my return to Australia. Back to Factor 50 for me. From Pakokku, Bagan is a leisurely two-hour cruise down the river or an hour by road. This is one of the world’s greatest archeological spots, a temple site to rival Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu. We’re talking real bucket-list stuff. The setting is “To truly grasp the scale of this medieval capital, there’s only one way to go: up. This is one of the places in the world to go hot-air ballooning” sublime: 67 square kilometres of verdant lands from which rise literally thousands of temples. Built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, they’re testament to the Buddhist belief that to build a temple is to earn merit. Like so many other structures in Bagan, the dome of the golden Shwezigon Pagoda – one of the most significant religious buildings in Myanmar – is covered in burlap when we arrive, the legacy of a recent earthquake and subsequent restoration work. But you barely notice it, there’s so much other gold on display. It might not be as seriously blingy as the similar-sounding Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (which is encrusted with more than 4,500 diamonds, including one that weighs in at an Elizabeth Taylor-worthy 72 carats), but it’s nonetheless very sparkly indeed. For more gold we head to the imposing Shwesandaw Pagoda, which is gilded when touched by the rays of the setting sun. There are five terraces from which you can watch the sun set at this 100 metre-tall pagoda. But be prepared to get there early to nab a spot – and for your legs to hurt. Temple fatigue is a possibility in Myanmar, but at Shwesandaw it’s a very literal thing, thanks to the steepest, deepest steps I’ve ever encountered. #TotallyWorthIt. Day four starts with a visit to Ananda Temple, regarded as the finest in Bagan. It’s beautifully proportioned and houses four enormous standing Buddhas – one of whom can look sad or cheery, depending on where you stand. Afterwards, we take a super-scenic horse-drawn carriage ride through the unique, temple- strewn countryside, ending at Damayangyi Temple, the biggest structure in Bagan. Lunch is at Popa Mountain Resort, about 90 minutes’drive away. The setting is lovely and the lunch tasty, but you could eat sawdust here and not really notice – it’s all about the view. There’s a vast plain and an extinct volcano, Mount Popa (‘Flower Mountain’), but star of the show is Taung Kalat (‘Pedestal Hill’), a huge, sheer-sided rocky outcrop that rises 657m above sea level. On top of it sits the sacred Popa Taung Kalat monastery, known as the home of the Nats (Burmese spirits which have been worshipped here for more than a thousand years). You can climb to the top via 777 steps, or just gaze in wonder from afar while you eat lunch at the resort. It’s dramatic, other-wordly and spectacular. I have yet to find a photograph that does it justice. But when it comes to views in this part of the world, the real money shot is back in Bagan. To truly grasp the scale of this medieval capital, there’s only one way to go: up. This is one of the places in the world to go hot-air ballooning, and every morning during the season (early October to the end of March) the sky is filled with colourful balloons from which wide-eyed tourists look down on the wondrous sight of 2,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas rising up from the temple plain. After a memorable last supper, a few of us are up super-early on our final morning, ready to take to the skies. We’re collected before dawn in a vintage teak coach and driven to the site with other excited visitors from all over the globe. It’s the perfect ending to a trip that’s given us an extraordinary insight into a traditional and deeply spiritual land that only started opening up to the outside world a few years ago. This final experience is, quite simply, unforgettable. Or at least that’s what they tell me. Unfavourable wind conditions caused our balloon to be grounded and our dreams to be dashed. Never mind, there’s always next time. This was a once-in-a- lifetime trip, but I think I’ll do it twice. H // The writer travelled as a guest of Sanctuary Retreats. 73